The film’s premise of four couples vacationing together is potentially a good one. Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) seem perfect for each other because they share obsessive personalities and a love of PowerPoint presentations, but after repeatedly failing to conceive a child, the two are almost ready to give up on their marriage. They want to give it one last shot and go to an island resort called Eden that specializes in healing relationships. They can’t afford to go by themselves, and beg their friends to come with them, because if four couples go it’s half-price.
Each of these three couples comes conveniently packaged with its own problem. Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman, from Watchmen) have begun to take each other for granted, due to the pressures of parenting young children and Dave’s demanding job as a video game salesman (though it’s never made clear whether he’s a wholesaler or works at Game Stop or what). Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) are former high-school sweethearts who are currently only going through the motions until their daughter leaves for college. Shane (Faizon Love) has recently divorced his wife and is currently dating a 20-year-old girl named Trudy (Kali Hawk) who thinks nothing of calling him “Daddy” in public.
Once the couples get to the island, they discover that Eden places much more stock in couples’ skill building exercises than snorkeling or sunbathing. Everyone but Bell and Bateman came for the fun and sun, and now they find themselves in group therapy at 6 a.m. The place is run by Speedo-clad, hippy dippy mystic Marcel (Jean Reno), and managed with a sort of fascistic precision by Sctanley (Peter Serafinowicz), who makes sure everyone is amply aware of the silent “C” in his name.
The movie manages to get quite a bit of mileage out of the wackiness that ensues, including sequences such as couples therapists who seem to want to sabotage everyone’s marriages, a school of tiny sharks that menaces Vaughn (and his overreaction at the “shark bite” that resembles a medium-sized paper cut), and encounters with an overly enthusiastic Latin yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) whose brand of yoga suspiciously resembles dry humping. Yet as the movie progresses, it becomes painfully apparent that no real surprises are coming our way. You can see every plot development and most of the jokes coming from a mile away.
One perfect example of this is the sequence in which Favreau and Davis go get massages, each struggling in vain to tack a happy ending onto his or her massage. Virtually every beat of these scenes could be predicted by any audience member who has ever seen a sitcom before.
It pains me to see so many good comedians — everyone from Bateman and Bell to people like Serafinowicz and Ken Jeong, who appear in small parts — wasted like this, although the actors do tend to wring rather more out of the material than most could. And that’s lucky, because none of the characters emerges as a real person or engages on any level other than the one problem the script as laid out for them. And at times, the script can barely elucidate that problem. Favreau and Davis are supposed to have fallen out of love with each other, but we never get a single reason why.
Of course, Vaughn and Favreau can only blame themselves. They co-wrote the film with dreckmeister Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas), and they bring nothing new to the table here. Vaughn and Favreau both play versions of characters they’ve played before, as does Bateman, whose character is basically Michael Bluth from Arrested Development minus the good writing. Some of these problems may have emerged from trying to find time to populate the film with eight separate well-defined characters, leading the filmmakers to settle instead for eight caricatures. But the film still somehow manages to find time for an extended Guitar Hero competition/commercial in the middle of the movie.
In the previous films that Favreau and Vaughn made together, from Swingers to Made and even The Break-Up, they weren’t afraid of being a little caustic, but here they never miss a chance to back away from the unexpected. This movie is fiercely committed to taking the path of least resistance, offering insultingly simple happy endings no matter how unrealistic they seem. This is nowhere more evident than in the film’s final act, in which each couple’s problem is solved in a ridiculously simple, perfunctory manner, wrapping up everything in a pretty little bow so we can go home happy. The movie is so desperate for happy endings that one previously unseen character literally appears in the last 10 minutes of the movie to assure that one couple gets back together.
Couples Retreat has a premise that could have supported some great comedy, and perhaps even said something truthful about the state of marriage today. Instead, for most of its length, it settles for being bland and vaguely amusing. Still, when I think back on it all I can remember are the things that annoy me. It’s a film that pales in the memory. As Vaughn and Favreau ease into middle age, they seem to have become comfortable with sidling into mediocrity as well.